Albums, Music

Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan

This is a good time to mention that Susheela Raman has a new album that came out last year, called Ghost Gamelan.

In case you didn’t know, Gamelan is a form of traditional music from Indonesia, primarily the islands of Bali and Java. The music is percussive, and its origins lie in Javanese mythology, from the story of a king who summoned the gods by playing on three gongs. So while gamelan incorporates a variety of musical instruments, the majority of the world identifies it via the distinctive sound of the metallic and bamboo gongs, xylophones, and cymbals that are used in the ensemble.

The first time I heard the sound of gamelan was, even though I did not know it then, the soundtrack of Akira. The layered, propulsive beats that underscored the violent motorcycle chase sequence in the opening moments of the film was all bamboo and metal gongs. The sound captures the frantic energy onscreen with perfection, and still manages to pump me up every time the beats kick in. For a movie that released in 1988, the music does not sound the least bit dated. (Contrast this to another sci-fi anime epic that released in the same time period -– I adore Joe Hisaishi, but the Nausicaa OST screams its time-period from the first synth-note)

Raman’s album, in contrast to Akira, fluctuates between percussion-heavy pieces (‘Tanpa Nama’) and slow, meditative pieces (‘Beautiful Moon’, ‘Spoons’) that accentuate the moodiness the musical form is capable of. Sometimes, her lyrics and the main melody dance around the traditional music elegantly, yin and yang (‘Ghost Child’); in others, voice and gong echo in unison. ‘Annabel’ is probably the only track that is old-school Susheela, and is a wonder unto itself. Oh, and the last song ‘Rose’ features lyrics by William Blake. While I don’t like quoting promotional material from album releases, the official text describes the music far better than I can:


Javanese music evokes  the invisible; ancestral presences, old religions, volcanic rumblings, and court intrigues. A sensuality of appearances, decorum, ritual and procession runs to trance and possession. Meanwhile, Raman’s songs here are meditations on change, transformation and mortality. Lyrics reflect on uncertainties cast by memory, desire and the ephemeral.  In this album, tonality and rhythm are questioned and de-centred, just as much as they are asserted. Some records achieve a fixed quality but this record is very ‘alive’, or volatile, both in the performances but also in the way it shifts as you hear it. The vitality of the interactions, of the musical cultures misbehaving with each other, result in a sound more ‘unearthly’ than ‘world’.

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A major part of the album depends on the skills of Raman’s collaborator, Javanese musician Godrang Gunarto and his ensemble. You can see them live here (apparently, they have been touring together since 2017) , wait for 3:42.

One of my favorite experiences with gamelan was a Hammer museum exhibit called The Gamelatron, from two years ago. This was an open-air installation featuring a five-piece kinetic sculpture that used robotics, metal gongs, and timers to play gamelan-inspired music. Viewers were encouraged to lounge around in seating areas and soak in the harmonies that played throughout the day. It was a blissful hour, and I remember coming out of the exhibit feeling rejuvenated.

I loved revisiting the music of Susheela Raman. It’s been 13-odd years since I heard Love Trap for the first time (and forged a life-long friendship in part because of a mutual love for her album). I hadn’t listened to her in years; a Whatsapp message earlier this year brought her again into my periphery, and this apparently is what I missed since 2011:

  • a 2011 album called Vel, which I never listened to
  • a cover of a Naushad song called ‘Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahaani’ for a 2013 movie called Kajarya (which strays into familiar territory as ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai’ from Love Trap)
  • a strange 2014 album called Queen Between, which features Raman collaborating with neither available on Spotify in the US, nor via any online music stores. Amazon has a (used) CD for sale, so it looks like this was never released in the US. So here we are, in 2019, unable to listen to an album with a few keystrokes and minimal latency. What is this world coming to?

At this point, our intrepid music explorer remembers this little-known site called Youtube, and he blushes at his tirade against digital tyranny. “I recant”, he exclaims, as his senses are filled with chocolate and chiffon, marshmallow and clouds. Behold, unbelievers, the joys of ‘Sharabi’, by Susheela Raman and Rizwan Muazzam.

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History, Today I Learned

A design consideration

The renowned American designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray Eames were once asked by the premier politician of a friendly country to evaluate the effect of Western technology, specifically design, on their culture. There was also the question of how the fledgling state could benefit from the Eames’s input.

The Eameses, true to their mode of working, went all in. In their report, submitted one year later, they went to great lengths to explain how true design is intuitive and yet evolutionary. As an example, Charles talked about the thinking that might go into designing a simple vessel that one might use to carry water.

  •  The optimum amount of liquid to be fetched, carried, poured and stored in a prescribed set of circumstances.
  • The size and strength and gender of the hands (if hands) that would manipulate it.
  • The way it is to be transported—head, hip, hand, basket or cart.
  • The balance, the center of gravity, when empty, when full; its balance when rotated for pouring.
  • The fluid dynamics of the problem, not only when pouring but when filling and cleaning, and under the complicated motions of  head carrying—slow and fast.
  • Its sculpture as it fits the palm of the hand, the curve of the hip.
  • Its sculpture as complement to the rhythmic motion of walking or a static post at the well.
  • The relation of opening to volume in terms of storage uses—and objects other than liquid.
  • The size of the opening and inner contour in terms of cleaning.
  • The texture inside and out in terms of cleaning and feeling.
  • Heat transfer—can it be grasped if the liquid is hot?
  • How pleasant does it feel, eyes closed, eyes open?
  • How pleasant does it sound, when it strikes another vessel, is set down on ground or stone, empty or full—or being poured  into?
  • What is the possible material?
  • What is its cost in terms of working?
  • What is its cost in terms of ultimate service?
  • What kind of an investment does the material provide as product, as salvage?
  • How will the material affect the contents, etc., etc.?
  • How will it look as the sun reflects off its surface?
  • How does it feel to possess it, to sell it, to give it?

The country in question is India, of course, and this object under consideration is a lota, that traditional metal water vessel used across the subcontinent. In their report, they wrote:

Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the Lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful.

The Eames Report was submitted to Pt Nehru and his cabinet in 1958, and in 1961, the National Institute of Design was founded in Ahmedabad, as an autonomous institute devoted to research, service and training in industrial design and visual communication. It now has five campuses across India, and is still going strong.

An interest in mid-century design had me reading about the Eames’ lives, specifically via the book The Eames Primer, written by Eames Demetrios, one of Ray and Charles’ grandchildren. The India episode came up as I flipped through the pages at a bookstore, and made me realize I had no idea that the couple were that closely entwined with the history of modern Indian design, specifically with NID, even though I have known and even worked with friends who were graduates from the institute.

While I did think of getting a classic Eames recliner when it showed up in Costco, of all places, the Herman Miller price-tag is a little too daunting for me at the moment. Seriously, if it is a toss-up between a chair and an entry-level Sandman page, you know I would pick the page.

But I could not resist picking up a knock-off Eames recliner from a local vintage furniture shop earlier this year. Turns out there were a lot of customers gnashing their teeth between the time I paid and the chair got delivered home.

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History, Today I Learned

From writing to printing

Picture of the Ellesmere Chaucer, a vellum manuscript written between 1400-1405, from the Huntington Library, LA.

Every time someone comes to you and says that New Technology X is evil and will bring the end of worlds, consider this:

The monk Johannes Trithemius, who lived around the late 1400s, wrote this in his essay In Praise of  Scribes:

Scriptures on parchment can persist a thousand years, but…the printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely; printed texts will be deficient in spelling and appearance. Posterity will judge the manuscript book superior to the printed book. Handwriting is a spiritual act, a form of religious devotion that putting blocks into a press will never be.

Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer, said this about the fledgling printing industry:

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing.”

Ironically, this was the same printing industry that led to his work being disseminated beyond his wildest dreams.

Erasmus:

“In former times pupils at school had to take down so much long-hand that boys wrote rapidly but with difficulty, constantly on the lookout for symbols and abbreviations to save time…nowadays the art of printing has led to the situation that some scholars do not write down anything at all.”

Luther, Erasmus, and Trithemius, and Socrates, and countless pundits throughout the ages have focused on the same points: new technology disrespects tradition and generational history; those who disrespect tradition are coarser, have lesser levels of education and therefore, a decreased standard of existence.

Photograph: The Gutenberg Bible, taken at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles.

Manuscripts persisted after Gutenberg’s invention. People did not suddenly throw away pens and start pressing type against paper. The two technologies continued side by side for decades, and in fact, the first printed books used laborious, inefficient processes to mimic the look of familiar books. Illustrations were added by hand to a printed book, in different colors, as were rubrications, margins, and standard guidelines that were included in scribal manuscripts. The first print font was also an imitation of a manuscript, being developed by craftsmen hired by Gutenberg. Each of the upper and lowercase letters, symbols and punctuation marks – 290 in all – were painstakingly carved so that they would resemble the ink-drawn versions of the letters scribes were producing with pens.

The true effect of the printed book was felt in its economics. Slowly but relentlessly, the centuries-old profession of traditional bookmaking was rendered obsolete, with monks and guildsmen losing a centuries-long monopoly.

But the printing press also created new professional possibilities for those who had good handwriting. Instead of writing a few commissioned books a year, scribes began to teach penmanship to others through tutoring classes, which gained popularity throughout Europe. The profession of secretary also arose, as the age of exploration and new lands brought about more business and bureaucracy — and consequently, more documentation. Ironically, these writing masters published printed books to disseminate their lessons; this led to further fortunes.

In conclusion, isn’t this generational hubris, to think that the new supplanting the old is an attack on our culture and moral fiber and everything good that we know and cherish? I am not saying that everything that is new is better. But I believe that we as a species have figured out how to filter the short-sighted wins and favor the long-term. Not all of us may know or respect history, but history don’t need your respect, bitch.

On that note: goodbye, 2017.

Ideas and quotes taken from an excellent book called The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek.

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Comics, Manga, Today I Learned

The Gaiman Awards

Today I learned that there is an award for comics called the Gaiman award. And contrary to what one might expect, it is not related to our favorite Wordsmith in Black.

The word ‘Gaiman’ here is an abbreviation of “Gaikoku no manga’, literally, ‘foreign comics’. This refers to comics translated from foreign work and published in Japan. For those of you who fret over what is comics and what is manga and bug-eyed-styles and all that, here you go: ‘Civil War’ translated into Japanese and published in Japan becomes manga, and can even get nominated for a manga award. You can keep your Western biases to yourself, thank you.

The list of comics nominated since the award was instituted in 2011 shows a curious mash-up of titles, including the aforementioned Marvel title; Superman: Red Son rubs shoulders with the likes of Nicholas de Crecy’s Celestial Bibendum (French), Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités Obscures (Belgium), Lat’s Town Boy and Kampung Boy (Malaysia), Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants. All of which make for great, solid reading — though the jury’s still out on The New 52: Shazam, which managed to make an appearance on the 2015 nomination list. (The previous sentence is vague hyperbole, the prize went to Sweden’s Sayonara September, by Åsa Ekström)

One thing to note: the titles nominated are based on translation date, and not on publication date. This causes similar confusion as the ‘Best US Edition of International Material (Asia)’ Eisner award, where classic material ends up being nominated alongside newer ones, just because they were translated the last year. In 2016, a work by Shigeru Mizuki from the 80s (Showa: A History of Japan) beat the contemporary Master Keaton and Assassination Classroom in the Eisners.Doesn’t that make it overly confusing to judge something that is fresh along with another that has been coated with the patina of time and generational acceptance?

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